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Hobson’s choice

Political leaders during the debate at the University. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

Political leaders during the debate at the University. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

Edmund Burke, the great 18th century Irish political philosopher, warned of the dangers of politicians becoming “bidders at an auction of popularity… flatterers instead of legislators… the instruments, not the guides, of the people”.

As Malta reaches its verdict on who should govern it for the next five years, we should be deeply sensitive to Burke’s warning. The Maltese “auction of popularity” has already drowned out most policy debate with a tsunami of electoral bribes.

From Joseph Muscat we have promises of tax cuts, the repaving of all roads in seven years, free public transport for students, pensioners, the disabled and children, and much else. From Simon Busuttil, a sudden rediscovery of the need for a constitutional convention, a return to so-called “principles”, a €10,000 grant for young families to relocate to Gozo, free childcare for all, and much more.

The PL and PN auctions know few bounds. The question voters should be asking themselves is whether they are again being offered hollow, lavish promises “by flatterers instead of legislators” at the “auction of popularity” now under way.

My question is necessarily addressed to switchers, the thinking section of the electorate, not to the bulk of voters, who in almost equal numbers, are irredeemably wedded to either Labour or Nationalist.

Switchers should weigh up the options on offer and then decide who is the more credible between Muscat and Busuttil. Do they believe the pretence that everything can be made better without taxes rising or spending being cut? Do they really think that hard choices aren’t necessary and that if you set out your “principles” these will survive the first encounter with reality: that business supporters who financed your election are not expecting their share of government largesse in return?

With three days to go, the election is being fought on two contrasting platforms. For the Nationalists it is about reintroducing good governance to Malta after four turbulent years of “corruption” and maladministration (which in Malta is often referred to as “corruption”). For Labour, it is about maintaining high employment and the financial prosperity and well-being created by a booming economy.

Busuttil has pinned his colours firmly to the good governance mast. He has been led by the nose by a blogger, who has convinced him and his supporters on the basis of highly suspicious circumstantial evidence – which has not passed any test in a court of law – that the Prime Minister, his wife and his two closest advisers, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, have been complicit in major acts of corruption.

It remains the case that, at the time of writing, there is clear evidence of malice aforethought by Mizzi and Schembri, but only an unsubstantiated perception of corruption. There is no smoking gun and none of the evidence presented to the magistrate about Schembri has been exposed to public scrutiny.

The fallout from this seriously appalling episode in Malta’s history has been wide-ranging, affecting the governance of this country, its international reputation, its financial services sector and its future energy plans.

Political leadership is not just about policy or strategy. It is about character

Muscat is undoubtedly guilty of failing to demand the resignations of Mizzi and Schembri as soon as their Panamagate involvement was exposed, and continuing to stand by them. His government is guilty of broken electoral promises and multiple cases of maladministration.

Busuttil is guilty of ratcheting up the accusations of “corruption” for party political reasons, based on the allegations and speculations of a notorious blogger who has waged a campaign of mudslinging, innuendo and disinformation modelled on the Breitbart assault on Hilary Clinton.

Busuttil is guilty at best of being naïve and showing a lack of statesmanship. At worst, of slander, a disregard for establishing the truth and gross political misjudgement in stoking international opprobrium against Malta.

Politicians who play to fears and belligerence of people – and, in Malta, the class prejudices that still sadly exist – debase rather than elevate our politics. Switchers will have to make their own judgment about who to believe.

As to the state of the economy, there can be little argument about Malta’s burgeoning prosperity. Does the economy trump the allegations of “corruption”? This is the decision switchers must reach.

The tragedy is that Muscat had a golden opportunity to change the political face of Malta to deliver on his promises about meritocracy, accountability, transparency and good governance. Instead, he betrayed those promises.

Will Busuttil be any different? The way Maltese politics is conducted begins with nepotism, cronyism and clientelism and this seeps into every pore of political life. It was rife under the previous Nationalist administration and I am confident that, despite declared intentions, Busuttil will crumble and be no different.

Before making their decision on which way to vote, switchers should also weigh in the balance two other factors: the competence and relative experience of the respective front benches, and the qualities of the two leaders.

Talk of some form of coalition government led by Busuttil – with the fascistic-sounding name, Forza Nazzjonali – is a high-risk voting strategy. Malta’s constitutional history of the last 100 years tells us that political teamwork is simply not part of the Maltese DNA. A “coalition”, no matter how devised, would be a recipe for political tension, in-fighting and governmental gridlock.

The crux for switchers, however, is the quality of the two leaders of the parties. Political leadership is not just about policy or strategy. It is about character. A prime minister must be able to marshal the facts quickly and make the right decision in fast-moving situations. It is a question of judgment as much as ideology.

Naivety is not a good characteristic in a prime minister at a time when resilience, determination and guile will be required for Malta to recover from a highly divisive, bitter and partisan election, while facing some of the most testing challenges to salvage its battered reputation in the financial services field. Whoever wins will have to mount a massive and professional lobbying public relations campaign in Europe to restore Malta’s dented image.

The choice is between an untested, weak if likeable leader of the Opposition. And a flawed, but experienced, more politically savvy incumbent Prime Minister (who may be forced to resign if the magisterial enquiry proves the blogger’s assertions right).

Busuttil or Muscat? Both PL and PN have let Malta down. I would be sorely tempted to write “none of the above” on the ballot paper. But that would be an irresponsible cop-out. I am attracted to Alternattiva Demokratika whose election strapline puts the ideal perfectly: “Vote Green. Vote Clean”.

But I have already voted in the fifth district and I know who got my vote there. It was a matter of Hobson’s Choice.

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